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31 Oct 2016

OFI: Undefeateds Go Down

by Chad Peltier

This weekend was primed to be one of the best of the year, according to the AP Preseason rankings. With Michigan-Michigan State, Florida State-Clemson, and Florida-Georgia, this looked like a top-heavy weekend going in to the season. Due to underperforming blue blood teams and some overachieving Power 5s like Nebraska, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, this ended up being a tense, deep college football Saturday with multiple upsets that took down seven ranked teams, including four previously undefeated schools. West Virginia, Baylor, Boise State, and Nebraska suffered their first losses and were probably the hardest hit, but other teams at least got a scare, with Ohio State winning by just four over Northwestern, Wisconsin going to overtime for its win over the Huskers, Utah losing to Washington by just a special teams touchdown, and Louisville needing a comeback drive from Lamar Jackson to escape from Virginia.

The College Football Playoff Selection Committee has a fairly easy job with the top four, as Michigan, Alabama, Clemson, and Washington are all undefeated teams from Power 5 conferences, but their order, and the fifth- and sixth-ranked teams, are much more difficult to come by.


  • The Big 12 is in an interesting position after losses by West Virginia and Baylor. The conference now lacks any undefeated teams and looks to be at risk of missing the College Football Playoff for the second time in three years. The highest-rated F/+ Big 12 school is Baylor at 18th, and Oklahoma (19th) and West Virginia (23rd) are the only other schools in the top 25. Current S&P+ win projections forecast West Virginia dropping upcoming games to Baylor and Oklahoma. Oklahoma has two games -- against the two one-loss teams -- where their S&P+ projected margin is under a touchdown. And Baylor is projected to lose to Oklahoma.

    Wins over Baylor and West Virginia would be the Sooners' first wins over S&P+ top-25 teams this season -- in fact, none of the three teams have a win better than Baylor's 35-24 victory over 35th-ranked Oklahoma State. If the current S&P+ scenario plays out, the three best Big 12 schools would all have two or more losses, all but eliminating them from the playoff. It's hard to see a path forward for a Big 12 school in the playoff at this point, even if Baylor upsets Oklahoma (where it has a 38 percent S&P+ win probability at the moment). After the conference's embarrassing non-expansion drama, it's a rough time to be a Big 12 school.

  • Speaking of quality wins ahead of the first College Football Playoff rankings this Tuesday night, Clemson picked up its third win over a top-15 S&P+ team in the 37-34 win over Florida State. The Tigers don't have a game remaining with an S&P+ win probability under 88 percent.

    Clemson's win over Florida State was its fifth of the year by a touchdown or less, and the game was just as close as the final score looks. The fourth quarter saw three lead changes, both offenses had the same success rates (42 percent), and their per-play averages were within 0.3 yards of one another. And even though Deshaun Watson threw two interceptions that would turn in to Florida State touchdowns and the Seminoles were more efficient with their scoring opportunities (averaging 5.8 points per opportunity to Clemson's 4.6), the Tigers created two more scoring opportunities than the Seminoles, which was ultimately enough for the win.

    When it comes to quality of competition, Clemson has the best strength of schedule among the undefeated Power 5 teams (32nd in FEI strength of scheduled played). But given their margins of victory and multiple close finishes, it's hard to argue that they have excelled in what the playoff committee called "game control" last season. Clemson has three main weaknesses -- the offense isn't very explosive on the ground or through the air (78th in overall IsoPPP), the rushing offense isn't very effective at 41st in rushing S&P+, and the defense can allow big runs -- which Dalvin Cook was able to exploit with touchdown runs of 43 and 70 yards.

  • Checking in the opposite side of the Power 5, preseason AP top-25 teams Ole Miss (preseason 11th), Georgia (18th), Notre Dame (10th), Michigan State (12th), and Oregon (24th) are all struggling to even get bowl eligibility. Of these five teams, only Ole Miss is likely to get to six wins according to the S&P+ win projections. In that group, at least Notre Dame and Oregon picked up their respective third wins of the season last weekend.

    It's worth taking a second to talk about Georgia-Florida in the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. This was a terribly ugly game to watch, with neither team managing above a 34 percent offensive success rate and the longest run of the game at only 12 yards. Neither team was particularly better than the other, though it seemed like Florida was never really in danger of losing after it went up in the second quarter. Florida averaged 0.1 more yards per play, lost the turnover battle, and averaged 1.6 fewer points per scoring opportunity, but it generated five more scoring opportunities. That was due in large part to a dominating field position and special teams performance: Florida's average starting position was more than 12 yards better than Georgia's, and Florida averaged nearly 16 more yards per punt than Georgia as well. Georgia rushed for a total of 21 rushing yards at 1.1 yards per carry -- an almost complete reversal of the Bulldogs teams under Mark Richt.

  • We'll end on a high note with the final undefeated Pac-12 team: the Washington Huskies. Washington survived its first matchup with a team ranked higher than 50th in the S&P+ (45th-ranked Utah) by just a touchdown (and a fourth quarter punt return touchdown at that!). The game should not have been that close looking at the advanced stats: Washington averaged 2.7 more yards per play, had an 8 percent higher success rate, and averaged 1.2 more points per scoring opportunity than the Utes. But Utah did two things to keep the game close: win the turnover battle (by just plus-1) and limit the Washington offense's scoring opportunities. First, Washington had the fewest number of drives of anyone in the country last week with just ten. It ran 26 fewer plays than the Utes too, as Washington struggled to keep Joe Williams (35 carries for 172 yards!) off the field. But it also only created scoring opportunities on 40 percent of its total drives (Utah was a little better at 45 percent), forcing two three-and-outs and four total punts.


  • Justin Thomas, QB, Georgia Tech. Justin Thomas leads his team in rushing this year and just crossed the 1,000-yard passing mark with his 264-yard passing and 195-yard rushing performance in the win over Duke.
  • Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon. Oregon has been wildly disappointing on defense on the way to a 3-5 record, but the team can be encouraged by the record-setting performance by true freshman Justin Herbert at quarterback. Herbert threw for a school-record 489 yards and no interceptions against Arizona State.
  • Chad Kelly, QB, Ole Miss. Chad Kelly gets the nod as a one-man offense with 465 passing yards and a team-leading 40 rushing yards in the loss to Auburn. With virtually no production on the ground, Kelly was forced to throw 59 times.
  • Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State. Yes, it was just against Purdue's miserable defense, but Saquon Barkley's production in three quarters of action deserves mention here regardless. Barkley had 207 rushing yards and 70 receiving yards, including six explosive plays for Penn State.


  • Jaire Alexander, DB, Louisville. The Louisville offense gets most of the attention, but Louisville's tenth-ranked S&P+ defense saved the win for the Cardinals. Jaire Alexander was the leader with his second two-interception game of the season, including a critical pick in the fourth quarter.

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 31 Oct 2016